Almost 10 years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, but many Americans still regard Muslims among us much as they did in the emotional days immediately following the attacks. For millions of Muslims living in the United States, the ramifications of 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” have become very personal, as the most hostile observers continue to put them in the same category as extremist jihadists. As the U.S. government has sought to prevent future domestic attacks with sometimes controversial surveillance, Muslim Americans feel stigmatization and discrimination.
In a new Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Muslim Americans say they feel targeted by government anti-terrorism policies — an accurate perception based on the recent news that the NYPD has been spying on Muslim communities in the greater New York City area, one of many similar covert efforts. A majority of respondents, 55 percent, say being a Muslim in the United States is more difficult since 9/11.
Significant numbers report being looked at with suspicion (28%), and being called offensive names (22%). And while 21% report being singled out by airport security, 13% say they have been singled out by other law enforcement. Overall, a 52% majority says that government anti-terrorism policies single out Muslims in the U.S. for increased surveillance and monitoring.
This contrasts with the poll’s findings that there is no evidence of increased support for Islamic extremism among Muslim Americans. Muslims in the United States actually reject extremism by much larger margins than Muslims living elsewhere, according to a comparison with another Pew study.
However, the poll found no indication of increased alienation or anger among Muslim Americans, and most respondents say they are satisfied with the United States and their local communities. According to the Associated Press,
“This confirms what we’ve said all along: American Muslims are well integrated and happy, but with a kind of lingering sense of being besieged by growing anti-Muslim sentiment in our society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim civil rights group.
While most Muslim Americans are content, the study revealed a disconnect between their actual feelings and outside assumptions about the community.
A significant minority (21%) of Muslim Americans say there is a great deal (6%) or a fair amount (15%) of support for extremism in the Muslim American community. That is far below the proportion of the general public that sees at least a fair amount of support for extremism among U.S. Muslims (40%). And while about a quarter of the public (24%) thinks that Muslim support for extremism is increasing, just 4% of Muslims agree.
The reasons for these ill-founded outside perceptions might be partially the result of Islamophobic networks that donate huge sums of money toward spreading misinformation about Muslims.
A new report by the Center for American Progress “reveals not a vast right-wing conspiracy behind the rise of Islamophobia in our nation but rather a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing.” The study found that over the past 10 years, seven foundations had spent more than $40 million on spreading misinformation about Muslim Americans.
One of the most obvious recent examples of such manipulation of facts was last year’s “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. Even though the proposed building was simply a cultural center, the project rapidly became the center of an intense national debate. The leaders in the movement against the “mosque,” who spouted anti-Muslim rhetoric on national television, were Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, the co-directors of the group Stop Islamization of America. Their efforts were able to create a mainstream, national issue out of an otherwise uncontroversial building.
The Center for American Progress’ report, “Fear, Inc.,” lists Spencer and four other “experts” who generate misinformation and spread Islamophobia: Frank Gaffney at the Center for Security Policy, David Yerushalmi at the Society of Americans for National Existence, Daniel Pipes at the Middle East Forum, and Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. These people, along with a few powerful Islamophobic think tanks, have significantly contributed to misinformation about Muslim Americans, painting them all as terrorists — a portrayal that directly contradicts the realities found in the Pew Research Center’s poll.
Given the fact that Muslim Americans are up against a $40 million campaign to misrepresent them, it’s no surprise that most think life in the United States is more difficult since 9/11. As the anniversary of the attacks approaches, both of these new studies serve as a reminder to resist generalizing Muslim Americans and to critically evaluate Islamophobic messages in the media.